Oilseed crops give farmers options

BRANDON — What’s the big deal with sunflowers and soybeans?
Plenty, according to Jon Satz of Woods Market Garden in Brandon. Satz spoke about the cultivation of oilseed plants to a group of some 20 people last Tuesday, at an event sponsored by the University of Vermont Extension System.
Satz added sunflowers to his vegetable growing rotation in 2009, then added soybeans the following year. He was curious about the potential for growing a crop that could be turned into oil for energy.
That first year, he got a ton of sunflower seeds per acre, sent them out to be processed and sold them to a buyer down South, who got good results from burning them.
This year, Satz has installed a low-emission biomass burner that will burn a whole range of fuel, from wood pellets to oil. He’s hoping to replace the propane he uses to heat his greenhouses in the spring mostly with vegetable oil or biomass. This year he started with more predictable wood pellets, since he was learning to use the new burner.
Still, Satz said while soybeans and sunflowers produce a good output of oil, he’s not convinced that fuel is its best use.
And since Satz is certified organic for the first time this year, he said selling the food-grade oil for cooking or soap-making could yield far higher returns. He is still experimenting on that front, but he’s heard some interest in the oil from producers.
And Satz said the seed meal — the byproduct created in the oil pressing process — has also proved useful for the farm. The meal is high in nutritional value and works well as a fertilizer. That, said Satz, has actually become one of the primary benefits to growing oilseeds, since one of his larger inputs is an expensive chicken-based compost that he buys from New York state.
“There’s definitely the oil component, but (oilseeds) are useful as much, if not more so, for meal,” said Satz.
Bay Hammond of Doolittle Farm in Shoreham attended the event, and she was especially interested in the meal. Hammond said her family is growing just a couple of acres of sunflower seed this year as a test run, but they’re hoping to use the meal as a nutritious feed for their chickens.
Because Hammond ordered the seeds later than most others, she said she was unable to find a fast-growing variety. Hers will likely take longer to mature, which she said could pose problems come fall, when the flowers need time to dry out before the seeds can be removed.
Satz said he’s also found seed supply to be difficult — there are few varieties with seasons short enough to be grown in the Northeast, and those supplies get bought up in the fall, leaving few options for farmers. Satz said it’s also a challenge finding untreated sunflower and soybean seeds, which are required for organic production.
Still, Satz has found that oilseeds are worth his time.
“The money is decent if you’re utilizing all the pieces,” he said.
Andy Bojanowski of the Eddy Farm in Middlebury said he was also curious about the idea of producing oil for sale to restaurant kitchens looking to use it in their fryers, then picking up the oil after it is used to clean and reuse as biodiesel.
But the growing process isn’t without its difficulties. Heather Darby, a UVM Extension agronomist, said depending on the time of year crops mature, blackbirds can pose a threat to the flower and its seeds. UVM staff is also tracking the banded sunflower moth, which preys on sunflower crops.
Darby has worked to determine best practices for growing oilseeds in Vermont in trials during the past few years, and she offered some data on the best planting density and ways to control weeds. She said growing these plants conventionally does allow for use of some herbicides, but with the right practices, they can yield nearly as much using just organic techniques.
Satz agreed.
“The input costs are very similar if you look at conventional versus organic,” he said.
And, said Darby, sunflowers stand up well to weeds as soon as they’ve grown a deep enough root. She said they can be surrounded by weeds and still draw up plenty of nutrients from deeper in the soil.
Those low levels of input are good for Satz, who said he’s always trying to reach a balance of time on farm work.
“We have to be efficient enough that we can still pay attention to the fruit and vegetable crops,” he said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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